The Art Market: Beware of buyers

A cross-shaped symbol highlighted no fewer than 22 lots in Sotheby’s sale of 77 pieces of Imperial ceramics from the Meiyintang collection, which was dispersed in Hong Kong on April 7. It signalled “premium lots”, and potential buyers on these were required to pre-register and, in some cases, give a deposit (rumoured to be $500,000) or financial guarantees. They were handed a special paddle and were not allowed to bid online.

Sotheby’s “premium lots” system is not new – it dates from 2007 – and is only used in Hong Kong. But it has been thrown into sharper focus with the arrival of Chinese mainlanders in the saleroom. They sometimes don’t pay up: last year Sotheby’s sued two non-payers in Hong Kong (the cases settled), and before that a mainland buyer refused to complete the purchase of two Zodiac heads at the Yves Saint Laurent sale in 2009. And a £51.6m Qianlong vase is still apparently unpaid for in the UK.

Did the “premium lots” system have an adverse effect on the Meiyintang sale, which fell short of expectations? The collection was, in the words of London specialist Roger Keverne, “put together with impeccable taste and knowledge, it was the best of the best”. But it missed its $91m-$137m target, totalling just $51.2m with 23 lots bought in. Among the casualties was a Qing dynasty vase picturing golden pheasants, estimated at more than $23m. After the sale, however, the vase found a new home at $25.64m, as did the second highest estimated lot.

Estimates were on the high side but the true reason is more likely to be a change in buyers’ tastes. The Meiyintang pieces were exquisite but understated, perhaps not as flashy as new money buyers want. That being said, a single buyer bought eight of the monochrome lots.

Overall, Sotheby’s auction week did well, raising $447m over eight sales of art, jewellery and wine, well up on last October’s total of $396m.

The second part of the Peter Stuyvesant collection of contemporary art comes up for sale at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam on Tuesday. The works of art, mainly paintings, come from what was at the time a groundbreaking experiment to brighten conditions in a Dutch cigarette factory. From 1960, more than 1,500 works of art were bought by the company, which was subsequently taken over by British American Tobacco. A first sale held last year was a rip-roaring success, raising €13.6m, more than double the estimate, and now a second selection comes on the block. The works reflect their times and fashion and, on the whole, are large, bold and colourful, according to the original guidelines of Alexander Orlow, founding father of the collection. Estimates are attractive: among the offerings are Patrick Heron’s 1974 “Violet, Orange and Reds with Green Disc” (est €50,000-€70,000); the French artist Ben Vautier’s apposite “Pas d’art sans fumée!” 1990 (est €12,000-€16,000), or Christian Vetter’s “Monument Valley”, 2002 (est €2,000-€3,000)

London’s Islamic art sales concluded last week with a notable absentee – Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. It turns out that the son of the Libyan leader was a buyer of mid-range items at previous auctions. Bidding through a London-based agent, he was collecting for an as-yet-unfinished museum of Islamic art in Tripoli. This buying has stopped but Islamic art dealers were buzzing with the news that some consignors have been contacted because an unidentified buyer failed to pay for purchases at the sales last October. From there, many concluded that Saif Gaddafi could be involved. Sotheby’s and Christie’s refused to comment.

Mexico’s leading contemporary art fair, Zona Maco, which ended last Sunday, seems to have suffered this year – perhaps due to the country’s violent drug wars as well as global turmoil. While some dealers did well, including Matthias Arndt and Max Wigram, many of the 80 exhibitors reported slow sales. The fair, now in its eighth edition, is, nevertheless, improving each year and this edition attracted international galleries such as Lisson, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner. However, international collectors – from Europe, or other Latin-American countries, were thin on the ground and things were not helped by the current political row between France and Mexico.

The fair, as a result, mainly saw Mexican collectors, who are supportive of the event. “The Mexican market is growing steadily but slowly,” says Jaime Riestra, of leading Mexican gallery OMR. “And this is helped by the private sector, which is building museums.” Indeed, Mexico boasts the world’s richest man, according to Forbes magazine – telecoms mogul Carlos Slim Helú. He has recently inaugurated the Soumaya Museum to show his 66,000-strong collection, but does not buy contemporary art.

However there are other Mexican collectors, such as the financier Boris Hirmas, and he quickly acquired an installation of a poster and racks of bottled water. The piece was titled “Egalité” – as were the bottles, and a sign warned visitors that they were an artwork, not for touching. The 2004 piece by the Mexican Minerva Cuevas was tagged at $50,000 at Kurima. Teresa Margolles, whose work is mainly about death and its rituals, was showing four doors pocked with bullets, in front of which a drug dealer had actually been gunned down in 2008. One of these “Gun doors” (2009) was sold, and one on hold, at $15,000 each, with the Mexican Labor gallery. And Germany’s Johnen gallery said it was happy, having sold Berlin artist Olaf Holzapfel – “although the collector had not heard of him before”.

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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